The Christmas season is a joyous time to celebrate. We focus on family, feasting on favorite dishes and keeping traditions, like huddling around the TV with family to watch holiday classics. But, this can be a bittersweet season for the elderly. Joy may be clouded with feelings of isolation or thoughts of lost loved ones or times past. What can we do to support our loved ones in a way that helps meet their emotional and physical needs? There are steps you can take to encourage a positive frame of mind and help beat the “holiday blues.”
First, make a special effort to be together on the holidays. If that is impossible, send cards and small gifts with family photos, which can do wonders to help them feel included and remembered. If you have children, let them make cards with their own drawings and words. A little time spent in this kind of communication means so much more to our seniors than a purchased gift. Last year, an ACV member who stayed home for the holidays received several holiday photos from his loved ones. At the café each morning, he proudly spread out his photos on the table as he enjoyed his coffee. It became a conversation starter and he beamed with pride as he named off his family members.
If your loved one plans to visit you for Christmas, consider that they may have mixed feelings about it for health or emotional reasons. They may be going from a quiet, familiar atmosphere to one of bustle and stress. Give them the room that is most secluded in your home or offer to put them up in a hotel. This could mean the difference between them accepting your invitation or not. “Mom, I know the house will be crowded and loud and you won’t have much privacy. Would you prefer your own room at the hotel down the road and we can pick you up in the mornings?”
Secondly, take time with your senior loved one to reminisce about the good times, funny times and celebrations. This helps take the focus off past regrets, which the elderly sometimes tend to focus on instead of thoughts that are more positive.
Consider too that they may be struggling with underlying stress from finances or a medical condition. This can cause difficulty sleeping, feelings of fear, hopelessness and loneliness. Unchecked stress can lead to headaches, over-eating and increased desire to be alone. Instead of asking for help, senior adults may think that they should be able to pull themselves out of it. If you believe this is the case, gently encourage them to seek the advice of a professional.
Remind them to follow healthy practices, such as getting plenty of sleep and exercise, listening to soothing music and setting realistic expectations so they don’t set themselves up for disappointment. If they are with you for the holidays, provide opportunities for them to express themselves, like asking them to share a story or providing an opportunity for them to be involved in preparing for the festivities. Regardless of where your loved one spends the holidays, remain sensitive and observant and interact in such a way that shows empathy, love and concern.
Thirdly, acknowledge personal losses rather than avoiding them. This will help seniors to feel that they are not alone in their loss. For example, mention that, “Grandma would have loved the fall colors this year”; or, “Dad sure missed some good fishing on the river.” These kinds of statements affirm that there is a loss and that they are not alone in feeling it. Avoiding the topic may send the unspoken message, “I’m not going to mention Grandma because I don’t want you to get depressed and ruin the holidays for the rest of us.”
If an older person is still grieving the loss of a spouse, offer to provide some symbol of their presence during get-togethers, such as displaying in a prominent place a special wreath on the door, a lit candle on a table or a piece of art they created. Reminiscing puts our past in proper perspective and stimulates a positive look backward on our experiences.
Acknowledging personal loss, reminiscing on good times and making our seniors feel welcome are ways you can help your senior keep a positive frame of mind, and helping them to beat the “holiday blues” may just be the best gift we can give to our seniors during the holidays.
Note: While it is normal for the holidays to be difficult for many older adults, if the “holiday blues” do not diminish within a week or two, it may actually be depression. Contrary to what some people believe depression is not a normal part of aging. And it can be effectively treated, even among the elderly. Left untreated depression can cause health problems and a decline in self-care. Yet, it is important to understand that older people were raised in a time when depression carried a stigma and it was not believed to be a real illness. Many senior adults are too proud to ask for help, believing they should be able to pull themselves out of it. Failure to do so only intensifies the feelings of shame, hopelessness and loneliness. If you think your loved one may be dealing with depression, encourage them to seek the advice of a physician or mental health professional.